Wednesday, September 29, 1999

Congress to tackle

By Pat Omandam


The battle to end shark-finning in the Western Pacific Ocean has now reached Congress five months after the state Legislature failed to ban it.

A coalition of national conservation groups says a resolution introduced in Congress this week by U.S. Rep. Randy Cunningham (R, Calif.) would prohibit the controversial practice in the U.S. Pacific.

If approved, it would supersede plans by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council to discuss shark management options at its fall and spring meetings. The council oversees fisheries 200 nautical miles around Hawaii and other U.S. Pacific islands.

Dr. David Wilmot, director of the Ocean Wildlife Campaign -- a coalition of six conservation groups working to protect sharks and other large ocean fish -- said Monday the number of sharks killed in Hawaiian longline fisheries has climbed from 2,289 in 1991 to 60,857 in 1998, an increase of 2,500 percent. Most were blue sharks.

Shark-finning involves cutting off a shark's fin and then throwing the rest of the fish overboard. The fins are sold to Asian restaurants here and abroad for use in shark fin soup, a popular dish which is considered an Asian delicacy.

The fins sell for up to $50 a pound on the international market. Hawaii lawmakers estimate some $20 million to $30 million worth of fins go through the state each year, although little of that money ends up in the local economy.

"And because shark fins comprise only 1 to 5 percent of the animal's body weight, 95 to 99 percent of the shark is going to waste," Wilmot said.

Shark-finning is illegal in federal waters of the U.S. Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean but is expanding in the Central and Western U.S. Pacific. Sixteen out of 19 coastal U.S. states ban shark-finning because it is deemed wasteful.

Sonja Fordham, shark fisheries specialist for the Center for Marine Conservation and a coalition member, said the rampant finning off Hawaii threatens U.S. efforts to raise global awareness of the plight and conservation needs of sharks.

Conservationists contend the shark's biological characteristics -- slow growth, late sexual maturity and the production of few young -- make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing.

But James Cook, Western Pacific council chairman, has said the council must consider everyone's view on the issue because it answers not only to Hawaii residents but to the other Pacific islanders as well.

In testimony submitted to the state Legislature, Cook said no evidence exists to suggest the stock of North Pacific blue sharks is overfished, and there is no urgent need for restrictions on catches.

The council said Hawaii swordfish and tuna vessels using longline gear unintentionally snag about 100,000 blue sharks a year. About 60,000 of those sharks are finned. As a result, the council this past June agreed to place this type of gear under its existing definition of longline and to examine other ways to regulate the gear.

It also will consider additional regulations on sharks in early 2000, including full use of the fish, a moratorium on shark harvesting, quotas on the harvest, trip limits on the retention of sharks and limits on the harvests of certain species of sharks.

Hawaii fisherman last month petitioned U.S. Commerce Secretary William M. Daley to impose a ban on shark-finning in the Pacific, complaining the council is moving too slowly on the issue.

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